Celtics’ Enes Kanter claims NBA threatened to ban him for wearing ‘Free Tibet’ sneakers

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“I am for justice and freedom. It doesn’t matter who it’s for or against,” NBA veteran Enes Kanter explained to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “People think I do politics. I don’t do politics. I do human rights.”

The outspoken Celtics center caused a stir last month with his criticism of the Chinese government including President Xi Jinping, who he described as a “brutal dictator” and an “insecure tyrant.” That stunt, along with Kanter’s controversial “Free Tibet” sneakers worn during Boston’s season opener at Madison Square Garden, ended China’s relationship with the Celtics with streaming service Tencent announcing it would no longer broadcast their games on Chinese airwaves.

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The NBA is still rebuilding its relationship with China, which deteriorated after then-Rockets GM Daryl Morey (now of the 76ers) tweeted in support of Hong Kong amid widespread protests in 2019. Kanter’s activism predictably ruffled feathers within the league office, as the NBA threatened the 29-year-old with an ultimatum.

“I remember right before the [Knicks] game, it was two guys from the NBA, came up to me and said, ‘You have to take your shoes off, we are begging you,’” recalls Kanter, now in his second stint with the Celtics after spending last season in Portland. “I was like, ‘I don’t care if I get fined. I’m not going to take my shoes off.’ And they told me, ‘We’re not talking about fined. We’re talking about getting banned.’”

Kanter eventually called the league’s bluff, invoking his first amendment right to free speech. “I’m getting ready for my citizenship test and I’ve been studying really hard. There are 27 amendments and my first amendment is the freedom of speech. I know my rights,” said Kanter. “If I’m breaking any rules, tell me. I’ll be the first one to follow the rules. But if I’m not breaking any rules, I’m not taking [my shoes] off.”

Kanter was quick to point out the NBA’s hypocrisy, noting the league never tried to censor him when he spoke of human rights violations in his native Turkey. But because of the NBA’s popularity in China—and the financial ramifications it could cause—the league was quick to silence Kanter when the subject turned to Tibet.

“They say, ‘We are encouraging our players to talk about whatever they want to talk about. We are giving the freedom to our players to talk about all the injustices happening around the world, all the human rights abuses,’” said Kanter, accusing the league of talking out of both sides of its mouth. “[Commissioner Adam Silver] said, ‘Yes, we are supporting you against China.’ I don’t know how much of that is true.”

Drafted with the third overall pick in 2011, the 6’10” Kanter has been effectively “stateless” since 2017 when Turkey revoked his passport and issued a warrant for his arrest after speaking out against government corruption. Kanter has also lost contact with his family, who disowned him for his vocal opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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